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19.10.2017 14:18    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashat  noah  

“I have Set My Bow in the Clouds”



Parashat Noah tells the story of the flood.  Because of the immoral behavior of mankind, the Holy One, blessed be He, brought a vast flood upon the world, drowning all mankind save for the righteous members of Noah’s family who were in the ark.

After the water receded and Noah and his family left the ark, the Holy One, blessed be He, promised them He would never again destroy the world by flood, and gave them a visual sign of His promise:

G‑d further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.  I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Gen. 9:12-15)

These verses might seem to imply that the rainbow first appeared after the flood as a visual sign of the promise made by the Holy One, blessed be He, never to bring another flood to destroy mankind.  The rainbow is a natural phenomenon that accompanies rain.  Sunshine is a combination of all the colors of light.  When it rains, the drops of water act as prisms, diffracting the sunlight into its component colors, the entire spectrum which we see in the rainbow.  In the light of this scientific explanation, how are we to understand the Torah’s words about the divine origin of the rainbow?

Actually, these verses do not indicate that prior to the flood there was no rainbow.  They indicate that the Holy One, blessed be He, established the rainbow as a sign that as long as this natural phenomenon exists, He will not destroy the world by flood.  For example, I can make the following statement to a friend:  “The sun rising in the East shall be a sign that you can always rely on my assistance.”  In saying this I do not mean that now I am creating the sun, rather, that I will always assist my friend, just as the sun always rises in the East.

Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, choose the rainbow as a sign to mankind that there will never again be an all-destructive flood?  Why did He not choose some other natural phenomenon?

The usual explanation is that rain is one of the well-known phenomena that presage flooding.  Hence, when it rains hard, human beings might fear that the heavy rain is a sign of the onset of a vast flood that again will destroy everything.  The rainbow that accompanies the rain would serve as a sign of the promise by the Holy One, blessed be He, that such a flood will never again occur.

I believe there is a deeper reason for the Lord choosing the rainbow as a visual sign of His promise.  As we shall see, science discovered that the rainbow has a special property that makes it ideal as a sign of the Lord’s promise.

If asked to choose something that symbolizes permanence, we might suggest something such as a mountain.  Mountains rise to great heights and appear ideal as a symbol of permanence.  But this is an illusion.  Engineers today can easily drill into mountains to lay roads through them.  When necessary, heavy machinery can level entire mountains.  Essentially, engineers today can break apart just about any object into its component parts.  Therefore, something that would denote permanence cannot be comprised of smaller particles.

In the past it was thought that the atom could not be broken down into smaller particles.  In time, however, scientists discovered that it could be divided into smaller particles:  electrons, protons, and neutrons that make up the atom.  Since then we have found out that the neutron and proton in turn are comprised of even smaller particles called quarks.  There are, however, particles that cannot be further divided into smaller particles.  These scientists call “elementary particles” and they include electrons, quarks, neutrinos, photons, gluons and gravitons.  There exist still other elementary particles, but they are not of a stable nature.  Of course, only a stable particle is fit to be chosen as a symbol of stability.

The above-mentioned six particles are stable and cannot be divided into smaller particles.  So we have six stable particles that are candidates for symbolizing stability and constancy.  Five of these six stable particles can only be identified using scientific instruments, making these five unfit for serving as the sign of the Holy One, blessed be He, to mankind, who of course need to be capable of identifying the sign without any special instrumentation.  The only particle that answers this requirement is the photon, the light particle.

Until the end of the nineteenth century scientists thought that light was a wave phenomenon and spoke of “light waves.”  In 1900 Max Plank suggested the radical idea that light is comprised of a stream of particles which he called “photons,” from the Greek word for light.  Plank’s idea marked the beginning of quantum physics, a theory which to this day serves to explain almost all natural phenomena.

Plank showed how photons—light particles—could explain characteristics of light that had not been understood at all.  Plank’s idea that light is comprised of photons was developed and further clarified by Albert Einstein in 1905.  Both Plank and Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their important contribution to the study of the nature of light.

Unlike the rest of elementary particles, photons can be discerned with the unaided eye.  Essentially, the eye is such a sensitive organ that it can detect as few as ten isolated photons.  Therefore light is the ideal choice as a symbol of permanence and the Lord’s promise never again to destroy the entire world by means of a flood.  But why specifically choose the rainbow?  Why not sunlight?

Light appears in different colors.  The color of light is determined by the energy of its photons.  Red light contains photons with a low energy level, while blue light contains high-energy photons.  Therefore are even photons with higher energy levels that the human eye is not capable of discerning, such as ultra-violet radiation and X-rays.  There also exist photons with lower energy levels than that which can be detected by the human eye, such as infra-red radiation and radio waves.

The color of sunlight is almost white.  The whiteness of sunlight stems from the fact that the light of the sun is a mixture of light of many colors, ranging from red to blue.  The eye perceives this mixture as white.  In other words, sunlight contains a variety of different photons, each of which has an energy level and color of its own.

The color of the sun’s light will change if photons of certain colors are removed from it.  That is what happens at sunset, when the sun takes on an orange-red coloration.  The beautiful sunsets that we watch are formed by the blue photons being removed from the sunlight, leaving red, orange and yellow photons.  At sunset, when the sun is close to the horizon, the sun’s light must penetrate a thick layer of atmosphere in order to reach the eyes of the observer.  This causes the blue photons to scatter apart from the sunlight (for technical reasons, blue light is diffracted by the atmosphere more than other colors).  Since the color of the sun changes in the course of the day, sunlight is not a good choice as a symbol of permanence.

Is there a situation in which the sun’s light contains a singular color, as opposed to a mixture of colors?  The answer is yes, in the rainbow, when the drops of rain diffract the sunlight into its component colors.  Each of the colors in the rainbow is singular, containing identical photons whose color never ever changes.  Thus the rainbow is the ideal visual sign for permanence in nature, so we can understand how it was chosen as the sign for the Lord’s covenant with mankind.

I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.  I will maintain My covenant with you:  never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Gen. 9:9-11)

These verses indicate that this covenant is not restricted to the Jewish people, as were later covenants (Gen. 15:18, 17:11, Ex. 24:8, 31:16, 34:10, Num. 25:3, Deut. 5:2).  Nor was this covenant limited to human beings.  The first covenant included all living creatures.

The dazzling rainbow of photons will serve for ever and ever as the visual sign of the Lord’s promise that the natural world will have permanence.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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